Can Flames goalies continue historic pace? Past goalies weigh in

Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom grabs for a loose puck during second period against the Florida Panthers in Calgary, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (CP/file)

Given how wide open the game was when he played, it’s a record Mike Vernon never had much of a chance to break.

He wasn’t even sure what the record was, as the only statistic that goalies in the 1980s could bear to look at was wins.

But when asked if his Calgary Flames’ contemporaries have a chance to break the NHL’s modern-day team shutout record, the man who backstopped the franchise to its only Stanley Cup win was open to the possibility.

“Every record can be broken ... except one,” said Vernon, pausing for dramatic effect.

“Glenn Hall, 502 consecutive games played.

“Any other record out there can be broken, and it will be.”

The question is whether Jacob Markstrom and Dan Vladar, who have combined to post eight shutouts in the team’s first 39 games, can continue their record-setting pace.

The bigger question, when canvassing a slew of former netminders from various eras, was "What is the NHL team record?"

The answer: 15.

Tony Esposito single-handedly turned the trick in 1969-70, when the Chicago Blackhawks Hall of Famer set an individual mark that has been unequaled dating back to when the forward pass was introduced, in 1929.

Esposito did it in a 76-game season in which he started 63 times.

He shares the record with the 2011-12 St. Louis Blues tandem of Brian Elliott (nine shutouts) and Jaroslav Halak (six).

Markstrom’s shutout Wednesday in Columbus was the team’s first bagel in more than two months, but it puts the Flames duo on a pace to finish with 16 over an 82-game schedule.

“Both guys are playing well, and with the commitment they’ve got to playing good, hard, defensive hockey, they’ve got a chance,” said longtime Oilers Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, who pitched 25 shutouts in his 19-year career.

“To get to 15 would be a phenomenal feat, but to get to 15 is a long way. It doesn’t sound a long way with the number of games they have left, but that’s a lot of perfect hockey.

“One mistake and there it goes.”

To his point, the Flames have had five shutout bids ruined by lone goals from the opposition.

“I thought if anybody could do it, it would be Marty (Brodeur),” added Fuhr of the winningest goalie of all time, who boasted 125 shutouts, which included combining with two others to finish with 14 in 2003-04.

“With the trap system they played, and as good as he was, when they didn’t do it I thought it was untouchable.”

The Blues of 10 years ago proved him wrong.

In an ever-changing game, former Blues goalie Mike Liut said anything is possible, while pointing out Esposito’s record was a product of the times.

“In the late '60s, Chicago was an elite team, there was an expansion of six teams and a game that was more methodical/experienced than today's NHL,” said Liut, now a player agent and the only goalie not named Dominik Hasek to win the Lester B. Pearson Trophy (1980-81).

“By the late ’70s and ’80s, the game was wide open. The next round of expansion brought the trap, left-wing lock and the allowance of interference through the neutral zone and more shutouts.”

While Esposito played in an era with straight-bladed, wooden sticks, the goalie equipment back then was much heavier and smaller than today’s goalies enjoy.

The fear of the position is gone too, as goalies have every inch protected with state-of-the-art gear covering far more of the net.

The goalies have gotten bigger – the nets are still the same size.

Kelly Hrudey, who played 15 years between the mid-80s and late ’90s, believes it is harder to pitch a shutout in today’s game.

“The shooters have never been better,” said Hrudey, owner of 17 career shutouts.

“The sticks are such a huge component, with the whip and the deceptive release. The shots of even the third- or fourth-line guys have never been better or more accurate.

“When I came in, maybe four or five guys on each team could shoot hard. When I left, maybe four or five didn’t shoot hard. Now, everybody shoots hard.”

As a Sportsnet analyst who broadcasts most of Calgary's games, he figured earlier on in the season, when the Flames had posted seven shutouts in their first 19 games, that one of the biggest challenges the Flames goalies would face is staying focused while going long stretches during games without being tested.

That hasn’t been the case of late, as the Flames have slipped in terms of playing tight-checking hockey.

Until Wednesday.

“You’re going to need not only great goaltending and team structure, but you’ll need a little bit of luck along the way ... and luck comes and goes,” said Hrudey.

“It’s just such a fine line when you play that position. When you’re in it, you can feel you’re on top of a shot, and then it just barely touches somebody and the shutout is gone.”

Another retired goalie-turned Sportsnet analyst, John Garrett, said coaching and technology make it easier to believe the Flames can challenge the shutout record.

“I’d say it would be easier now, just because of the videos and coaching – you have so many tools to use to know what guys like to do,” said Garrett, a Vancouver-based broadcaster who watched Markstrom closely when he played for the Canucks.

“He’s an Adonis sort of guy, big, strong and in great shape with a fierce, competitive attitude who takes great pride in every save. Every bad goal bugs him. He’s the type of guy I would say could challenge the record. But it’s all about the situation.

“To me, shutouts now are a sign of a good defensive team rather than the goalie taking credit for it.”

The Flames have remained top 5 all season long in terms of goals-against average, which is a testament to the detailed, hard-checking system coach Darryl Sutter put in place.

League data shows the era when shutouts were most prevalent was the early 2000s, with the three highest rates of shutouts per game came between 2001 and 2004.

“At that point, we were still in the dead-puck era and the league hadn’t cracked down on goalie equipment by then, and we were past the stand-up goalie era,” said goalie guru Kevin Woodley, co-founder of InGoal Magazine.

“We were into the modern butterfly era of hockey and an area right when goaltending started to get ahead of the players in terms of off-season training.”

However, five of the top 10 seasons for shutouts came in the early 2010s, as Woodley figured the pendulum swung back in the players’ favour.

“I’d trust the data on this one,” said Woodley, who believes it is indeed harder to post shutouts now.

“To me, it’s more about the players catching up. They work with skill coaches and come to goalie camps to learn tendencies. There’s deception and release like never before.

“The margin for error is smaller and smaller for goalies. Relax for a second and you’re fishing it out of the back of the net. What I’m hearing from a lot of goalie coaches these days is, ‘You can’t get away with a B-game anymore.’”

Retired goalie Sean Burke cites officiating as one of the big impediments to breaking the record.

“I wouldn’t count them out, but the big reason I’d say it’ll be a tough record to break is because of the penalties, the way they call the game now,” said Burke, who doubles as a scout and director of goaltending for the Montreal Canadiens.

“They try to make as many of those calls so there are more power-play opportunities.

“Watching the skill level of these guys, the chances are any team that gets a couple power plays a night is going to score a goal. Not only would you have to play a good system, but you’d have to be pretty disciplined.”

Burke knows all about chasing shutout history as he was a Coyote when Brian Boucher set the modern record for consecutive shutouts with five in 2004. He pointed out the role luck plays in pitching a perfect game, as the goal that ultimately ended Boucher’s remarkable run was an otherwise harmless shot that ricocheted in off a defender’s shin pad.

“Shutouts get important in the game late in the third period, only then do you think of it,” said Burke.

“I don’t think a goalie would go into a year saying, ‘I want this many shutouts.’ It’s such a team stat, really.

“I will say, though, it does get easier in the second half, as teams are more focused on their two points and shutting things down a little more. That would be the one thing that could probably change it – if they got within striking distance, guys would actually play for it at that point.”

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